The liberty-loving peoples of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, did not initiate the Long War, though they will, given half a chance, finish it. Freedom of religion, in the era of modernity, is important; but never more so than the religion of freedom
Back in August, 2014, the former chief of the Australian army, Peter Leahy, spoke of a 100-year war against “radical Islam”. The Islamic Council of Victoria’s Ghaith Krayem slammed Leahy’s analysis as “ludicrous” and “grossly negligent” and likely to encourage “right-wing extremism” in Australia. For anybody following Bill Roggio’s Long War Journal website over the years, Professor Leahy’s comments were anything but controversial. Every day Roggio’s site chronicles another military or political episode in the global Long War. The December 16-17 siege killing at the Lindt Chocolate Café was duly featured by Roggio’s editorial team—“Sydney Siege Over”—but only for a short time and plainly in the broader context of worldwide Islamic militancy.
During the forty-eight-hour period following the Martin Place siege the Long War Journal reported the Taliban launching an attack on a high school in Peshawar massacring 133 children, the Islamic State (IS) over-running a town in Anbar, Western embassies in Egypt closing because of a Muslim Brotherhood-associated terrorist threat, suicide attacks in Kabul, the Nigerian army fighting a battle with Boko Haram, the Al Nusrah Front executing two men for blasphemy in Syria, and Turkey’s religious schools growing in strength as President Erdogan continued to Islamise his formerly secular nation. The Sydney deaths were but one—albeit appalling—moment in a continuing global war waged by individuals, gangs and movements that have adopted the ideology of stealth or violent jihadism.
Prime Minister Abbott chose his words with care when he discussed the Martin Place siege. He categorised the calamity as a “brush with terrorism” and deliberately differentiated everyday Muslims from Man Haron Monis, the Lindt Chocolate Café siege-killer: “We don’t blame the pope for the IRA and we don’t blame the Catholics next door for the folly and madness of some people who claim Christian motivations.” Tony Abbott might have been cautious in his remarks because many Muslims are not only victims of militant Salafism but are also prepared to give their lives fighting jihadism while protecting non-Muslims in the process (see “The Battle for Modernity on the Kurdistan Border”, Quadrant, January-February 2015). Notwithstanding this, as Frazer Egerton makes clear in the indispensable Jihad in the West: The Rise of Militant Jihadism (2011), Islamic terrorism might not be “dictated” by religion and yet it is “informed” by it.
Many of those accusing Tony Abbott of politicising the emergence of militant Salafists or Salafi jihadists in Australia—more than 450 according to the latest report in The Australian, with up to 110 now having travelled overseas to fight with Al Qaeda or the IS group in Syria and Iraq—are the same commentators who exploit the crisis for their own narrow partisan purposes. When Abbott disclosed to the Australian public that “terrorist chatter” had skyrocketed in the wake of Martin Place, critics of the Coalition hit back hard. Professor Jeff Lewis—“terrorism expert at RMIT”—was provided with a platform in the Sydney Morning Herald to censure Abbott for exploiting the public’s fear of domestic terrorism: “Given the unpopularity of this government, security is always something governments will use for their own purposes.” In the immediate aftermath of the Lindt café siege, Mark Kenny, chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, lamented the Orwellian nature of the government’s latest security regime—“gathering new information on the private dealings of people”—while disparaging the efficacy of those very same measures. Kenny wondered, for example, why the $630 million allocated to counter-terrorism had failed to remove the hazard of “so-called lone-wolf attacks” in our cities.
This essay is from the March issue of Quadrant.
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The conspiracist crew at Crikey would have appreciated the employment of the adjective “so-called” by the chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. Bernard Keane, in an October 2014 edition of Crikey, dismissed the theory that lone-wolf terrorists were being radicalised in our midst via exposure to IS propaganda and under-the-radar encounters with jihadist ideologues (or “radical preachers”). The lone-wolf scenario, insisted Keane, was “the new black in terrorist narratives”, and encouraged Westerners to view themselves—erroneously, of course—as the passive, blameless victims of irrational malevolence. Writing in the wake of the October 20 and October 22 killings in Canada, Keane noted that Muslim convert Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the Ottawa gunman, was a crack addict with a history of mental illness. Keane pointed out that Australia’s Khaled Sharrouf, father of the seven-year-old who appeared in August on social media holding aloft the decapitated head of a Syrian soldier, had been diagnosed previously with “chronic schizophrenia, delusions and a history of drug use”. Keane additionally informed us that another Australian IS member, Mohammed Baryalei, was associated with “drug use and mental illness”. In short, Australia should be indicted for “failing to provide sufficient resources to ensure vulnerable, marginalised people have access to effective mental services”.
Not even the Lindt Chocolate Café siege could divert Crikey’s political editor from his theme. Keane deplored the idea that the hostage-taker should be categorised as anything other than a “mentally ill violent criminal”; associating his actions with violent jihadism was “wrong in every possible way”. Many ordinary Australians might have thought Keane was “wrong in every possible way”, given the prominence of the black Shahada flag during the siege and Mon Haron Monis’s self-declared allegiance to the Islamic State before and during the siege, not to mention his past association with Hizb ut-Tahrir leader Ismail al-Wahwah. Needless to say, the IS group’s Dubiq magazine praised the siege-killer for his “daring raid” and “striking the kuffar [non-Muslims] where it hurt them most—in their own lands”. An editorial in the Spectator Australia sensibly declared the debate about whether the Sydney gunman was “a terrorist or a lunatic” to be “nonsensical” since “self-evidently the answer is both”.
Two days before the Michael Zehaf-Bibeau episode, Martin Couture-Rouleau used his car to run down two Canadian Armed Forces soldiers, one of whom later died. Though Couture-Rouleau, a Muslim convert and unapologetic advocate of the Islamic State, could not have made his violent jihadist disposition more obvious, the Canadian writer Peter Wheeland responded almost at once with an article titled “This Isn’t Jihad, This is Schizophrenia”. In Wheeland’s assessment, the death of fifty-three-year-old Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent ought not to be blamed on Couture-Rouleau or his proclaimed allegiance to the ideology of the Islamic State but—yes—Canada’s “ineffectiveness in dealing with mental illness”. France’s inability to deliver “effective mental services” also came into sharp focus when three (officially designated) “mentally disturbed and unbalanced individuals” made attacks on Christmas shoppers in Joue-les-Tours, Dijon and Nantes, the last two involving vehicles. The journalist Sara Miller Llana wondered—perhaps ironically—if France might not have found itself in a world of “terrorism sans terrorists”.
The Charlie Hebdo shootings on January 7, 2015, should have cleared up any doubts. Gunmen repeatedly bellowed “Allahu Akbar!” as they fired up to fifty shots with AK-47 assault rifles, murdering twelve people, including the satirical magazine’s editor, Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier, and seven other employees. Even the most obtuse observer chose not to explain away this calamity as confirmation of France’s underperforming mental health services.
The derisive humour of Charlie Hebdo could be expressed as leftist but of an iconoclastic type that in France has retained a real potency. Because secularist Marxism, rather than the identity politics of anti-bourgeois bohemianism, informed their sensibilities, Charbonnier and his colleagues were resistant to politically correct decorum. Genuine leftists in Australia who eschew PC protocol and maintain a high public profile are rare. The indefatigable Brendon O’Neill writes for The Australian, but then he is British and a resident of the United Kingdom. With some honourable exceptions, Australia’s modern-day leftists opposed O’Neill’s one-man Marxist alliance with the Coalition to repeal or at least modify Section 18C. It goes without saying where Charbonnier stood in the freedom wars.
US Secretary of State John Kerry referred to the murdered journalists and cartoonists as “martyrs of freedom”, while President Obama described the shooting as “horrific” and offered every assistance “to bring these terrorists to justice”. Nevertheless, Barack Obama cannot be credibly included in the “Je Suis Charlie” camp. The official US outreach to the Islamic world between 2009 and 2014 was characterised by all manner of PC rectitude, including the administration’s attempt to blame the Second September 11 Massacre (Benghazi, 2011) on a poorly made video titled The Innocence of Muslims. White House spokesman James Carney, as far back as 2012, queried the value of Charlie Hebdo publishing images of Mohammed that were “deeply offensive to many” and had the “potential to be inflammatory”. That said, freedom of speech is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States and so there was a necessary nuance in Carney’s remarks: “In other words, we don’t question the right of something like this to be published; we just question the judgment behind the decision.” Here lies the real fault line in our civilisational war: freedom versus submission.
If the behaviour of the Islamist terrorists in Paris could not be plausibly attributed to France’s mental health services or the country’s (allegedly) time-honoured misogyny, some other explanation indicting the French people for their own grief had to be evoked. Senator Rand Paul, the American libertarian-isolationist, found a motive for the Charlie Hebdo carnage in President François Hollande’s recent interventions in Africa and the Middle East against Islamic jihadism:
They see us attacking them, and killing innocent people, so yes, they, they have—this doesn’t justify, so don’t put those words in my mouth—it doesn’t justify, but it explains it.
Robert Fisk, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, also held France culpable for its own misfortune. He claimed the Paris bloodbath perpetrated by the Algerian-French brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi was a response to the Algeria War. Though this particular conflict ended more than half a century ago, France’s aggression in Algeria supposedly “provides a fearful context for every act of Arab violence against France”. Fisk’s rationalisation raises more questions than answers. For instance, if the parents of the Kouachi brothers considered the French “spiteful and filthy”—à la the IS group’s depiction—why emigrate to France in the first place? And why did the Algerian-French policeman, Ahmed Merabet, lose his life attempting to protect the employees of Charlie Hebdo? And how come the Algerian-French copy-editor Mustapha Ourrad—also murdered by the Kouachi brothers—worked for the satirical magazine? And last, but not least, why were the Kouachis doing the bidding of Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, part of a transnational Islamic terrorist network? AQAP is a notorious outfit that often makes an appearance in Bill Roggio’s Long War Journal, and it does not give a fig for Algerian self-determination.
More murders followed the Charlie Hebdo outrage. On Thursday, January 8, a Malian-French Muslim convert, Amedy Coulibaly, shot dead an unarmed French policewoman, Clarissa Jean-Philippe; the next day he slaughtered four Jewish patrons of Hyper Cacher, a kosher supermarket. Chloe Patton, writing for the anti-Israel outlet Mondoweiss, explained the murder of seventeen people by Islamic jihadists without making any reference to the deliberate targeting of the four French Jews. Her explanation for these grotesque crimes—“the historical traumas of the global south continue to haunt the postcolonial present”—amounted to little more than another version of Robert Fisk’s apologia for monsters.
Robert Fisk, Chloe Patton, Peter Wheeland, Bernard Keane, Mark Kenny et al are what Christopher Hitchens derided as “soft left”, while Rand Paul might have been dismissed as merely “soft”. Their capacity to delude themselves about “Islamofascism”, avowed Hitchens, was “something more like self-hatred than appeasement”.
Bernard Lewis, in Notes on a Century (2012), offered a different perspective on the same phenomenon. He maintained that a “cultural arrogance” permeated our commentariat, and this caused it to believe that “the West is the fountain of everything and that everything that happens in the world is determined by the West”. In an earlier time, this conceit encouraged not a few to presuppose “everything Western was good, but at the present time it is more fashionable to assume that everything Western is bad”. The determination of so many latter-day leftists to explain every development in the world as a consequence of Western actions is the “same prejudice” of old “but turned inside out”.
The “soft left”—the purveyors of bohemian socialism, identity politics and PC orthodoxy—found Lewis’s critique of Islam and the Greater Middle East inconsistent with their faith in a nascent global people’s community built on harmony and mutual respect. There was no place in their utopian reverie for Lewis’s warning about a “clash of civilisations”, his use of the expression pre-dating Samuel Huntington. Published soon after the September 11 attacks, Lewis’s What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (2002) contended that the Islamic world has held a grievance towards “the West” since the defeat of the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. A sequel, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (2003), placed Islamic “fundamentalism” within the wider tradition of Islam. Lewis, in Reflections of a Middle East Historian, claimed that once the shock of September 11 receded, our PC-minded guardians grew less interested in his concerns, given that they were not “in accord with their worldview”.
Bernard Lewis’s analysis did not match the beliefs of the gatekeepers of progressive orthodoxy, and yet events have largely corroborated his counsel. In Jihad in the West: The Rise of Militant Salafism, Frazer Egerton synthesises a variety of evidence to argue that militant Salafist grievances have their genesis not so much in real events as in the anti-modernity “big story” espoused during the first half of the twentieth century by the likes of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyib Qutb. The Islamist or Salafist tale contends that the global Muslim community (the ummah) is under immense danger from “the West” (or modernity) and only through a return to the purity of seventh-century practices and the strictest enforcement of Islamic law can good triumph over evil. War and violence, for Salafi jihadists, denotes the apotheosis of Islam: “Militant Salafism is a movement inspired by a religious and political metanarrative that demands militancy in the face of Western hostility towards Islam.”
Malek Merabet spoke some powerful words about his late brother, the Algerian-French police officer murdered outside the offices of Charlie Hebdo by one of the Kouachi killers: “He was proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic—liberty, equality, fraternity.” Ahmed Merabet lost his life attempting to protect the writers and cartoonists of a satirical magazine that expressed opinions he might have personally disliked. That fact alone ought to put paid to the preconception that Muslims cannot embrace the values of secular democracy, which includes allowing everybody else to practise their own faith in their own time so long as they do not use it as a weapon to silence, censure, intimidate or regulate others. However, Malek Merabet went further in his eulogy and rebuked the terrorists who murdered his brother as “people who pretend to be Muslim”. This assertion, which somewhat echoes Tony Abbott’s comments in the immediate aftermath of the Lindt café siege, was understandable in the circumstances and not entirely awry. But it is not the whole truth.
Daniel Pipes has coined the expression “Sudden Jihadi Syndrome” to point up the astonishing rapidity with which a young Muslim living in the West can transform into a militant Salafist. Egerton’s Jihad in the West, based on genuine research and authentic case studies, confirms that religion—or, more specifically religious culture—should not be ignored when accounting for the conversion of an individual to a Salafi-jihadist state of mind. Attempts by sociologists to explain Sudden Jihadi Syndrome in generic concepts of “alienation” are deficient because a “militant Salafist is someone who considers their identity as a Muslim as paramount and holds that Muslims face hostility and aggression to which they have a duty to respond with violence”. Likewise, it is not tenable to explain terrorist attacks in the West—from 9/11 to Charlie Hebdo—in terms of “blowback” because militant Salafist indoctrination has its antecedence in the half-truths of Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Propaganda. An Islamic terrorist, to give one instance, who gave Tony Blair’s 2003 intervention in Iraq as his motivation for the London bombings on July 7, 2005, had cheered on the terrorist attack on America in 2001. Finally, Sudden Jihadi Syndrome can afflict any number of personality types, from the mentally unstable Lindt café siege-killer to playboy Mahmoud Abdullatif, up-and-coming male model Sharky Jama, and even La Trobe University business student Yusuf Yusuf. All of them, due in large measure to the mastery of “the hypermedia” by militant Salafist propagandists, bought into a totalitarian ideology. Their grasp of the Koran and hadiths might be limited but this is of no consequence because their religious-political faith happens to be “emotional and anti-intellectual”.
Salafi jihadism, not to mention Iran’s rendering of Islamofascism, has embarked on a fight to the death with the West, “the West” being not just a geographical entity but also the presence of liberal humanism and secular democracy in the Greater Middle East. Nevertheless, most of the major defeats and victories in the Long War go uncommented upon or are misapprehended in the West. The triumph of the Egyptian people, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, over Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood administration was misconstrued by the White House and much of the Western press as a setback for liberty. In the same way, Michelle Obama, Julia Gillard et al focused their attention of Boko Haram’s kidnapping of 276 Nigerian girls in 2014 without addressing the broader aims of violent jihadism, while our professoriat typically construes Hamas as a national liberation movement when it is actually an apocalyptic death cult. Though many politicians and commentators have been prepared—unlike Chloe Patton—to classify the carnage at Hyper Cacher as an act of anti-Semitism, even that acknowledgment does not capture the full lethal intent of Salafi jihadism, its Judeophobia having less in common with traditional European or Ottoman bigotry than with Hitler’s exterminationist anti-Semitism (Vernichtungantisemitus). And this list of cases, regrettably, is but an abridged catalogue of viewpoints so myopic that the parable of the blind men and the elephant comes to mind.
Salafi jihadism is a contemporaneous Islamic manifestation of violent apocalyptic millennialism. Its ultimate goal is the creation of a global entity, Ummah al-Islam, ruled in strict accordance to Islamic law. Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi’s Khmer Rouge-like Islamic State provides us with an insight into how it would all work. The more obvious fault lines in the Long War were easily discerned in the worldwide response to Islamic terrorism in Paris, with numerous people killed in anti-Charlie Hebdo riots and hundreds of Christian churches torched from Niger to Pakistan. But Salafi jihadism and politicised Salafism are two sides of the same Islamist coin. Having attempted to emasculate Western-style modernity in the Middle East, including demonising and deligitimising the State of Israel, Islamic “fundamentalists” call for an offensive on all fronts against modernity-freedom. Only in the wider context of the Long War can the full meaning—and interconnectedness—of everything from the Lindt Chocolate Café siege in Sydney and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris to the growth of religious schools in Erdogan’s Turkey be addressed.
After the murders in Paris, President Erdogan insisted that “terror has no religion”, before his prime minister likened the horrors unleashed by the Kouachi killers to Benjamin Netanyahu’s “criminality”. A leading member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party then expressed the suspicion that the massacre was “staged like a movie scene”. Soon Erdogan was blaming the French security forces for permitting the deadly attacks and accusing the West of “playing games with the Islamic world” resulting in Muslims having to “pay the price”. A week later, Erdogan—who is in the process of dismantling Turkey’s secular democracy whilst giving aid and comfort to Salafi jihadists in Syria—charged Charlie Hebdo with being “provocative” and “wreaking terror by intervening in the freedom space of others” and banned the new edition of the magazine in Turkey. Soon Erdogan will be claiming that the only victims in the Paris atrocity were the terrorists themselves, though hopefully he won’t start referring to them as “martyred heroes” as per Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Many conservatives have hoped that Russia would play a constructive role in the defence of Western civilisation and the promotion of Western values, but that was always unlikely while Vladimir Putin’s FSB ran a police state. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended the Paris “unity rally” or “march against hatred” on Sunday, January 11, but the next week protesters in Moscow holding up “Je suis Charlie” placards found themselves promptly arrested. The only state-sanctioned demonstrations in Putin’s Russia were the anti-Charlie Hebdo ones in Chechnya. Lavrov began blaming the Paris massacre on the Western-backed aim of ousting Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, which makes as much sense as Erdogan blaming it on the failure of the West to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. All we require is one of those latter-day leftist commentators possessing “something more like self-hatred than appeasement” to square the circle and find the Western powers guilty on both counts.
In stark contrast, one Kurdish representative after another—almost all Muslim or with Muslim heritage—demonstrated complete understanding of the significance of the Charlie Hebdo killings. As the spokesman for the Democratic Kurdish Council in France declared:
The mentality that massacred 12 innocent people in Paris on January 7 is the same mentality that has slaughtered Kurds in Kobani, Sinjar, Mosul and Kirkuk.
Those in the West who accuse the French satirical magazine of committing the “sin of provocation” allow themselves, consciously or not, to be co-opted by the other side in the Long War. More clear-sighted—and commendable—has been the reaction of the General Command of Rojava’s People’s Protection Units. They know the IS group’s offensive in northern Syria and the terrorism in Paris are not unrelated:
As the guardians of human values in the fight against ISIS terrorists in Kobani, we promise again to confront the vicious terrorists until the end when justice is served.
The Long War has taken many unexpected turns. Hours before the carnage in Paris, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi made an historic visit to Cairo’s Coptic St Mark’s cathedral. His inclusive message to Pope Tawadros II’s congregation, attending the Coptic Christmas Eve mass, signified a local version of Tony Abbott’s Team Australia mantra: “We must only be Egyptians.” At the very same time an imam at the Abu Hamda mosque near Alexandria denounced over a loudspeaker Christians celebrating Christmas as “miscreants”, “polytheists” and “unclean”. Just a week earlier, President el-Sisi—a pious Muslim but an implacable foe of the Muslim Brotherhood and its jihadist affiliates—berated Islamic clerics around the world for unenlightened and exclusionist attitudes that are “antagonising the whole world”. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s various criticisms of politicised Salafism and Salafi jihadism—or Islamic “fundamentalism”—suggest that he wants to undercut the Islamic revivalism so beloved of men such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyib Qutb. When President el-Sisi talked of the need for “religious revolution” he meant the secular revolution of Kemalism rather than the anti-modernity revolt of Islamism.
The Long War—or the War of Freedom—is real and its fault lines are not only geographical but also existential. To assert, as did the chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, that the Abbott government’s commitment of ADF personnel and sophisticated warplanes to the defence of the Kurdistan regional government and the Republic of Iraq brings no advantage for Australia’s future security—“Quite the opposite”—amounts to short-sightedness of a very special kind. Surely any kind of triumph by the Peshmerga against the Islamic State group is a success for the civilised world over the psychosis of apocalyptic millennialism now haunting the entire planet. The liberty-loving peoples of the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, did not initiate the Long War, though they will, given half a chance, finish it. Freedom of religion, in the era of modernity, is important; but never more so than the religion of freedom.
Daryl McCann has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au. He wrote “The Battle for Modernity on the Kurdistan Border” in the January-February issue.